Red to Blue: Prop. 187 and California’s Flip

By Lily Warner

After WWII, Californians consistently voted for Republican Presidents for 40 years, from 1952-1992 (with the exception of the 1964 election, where Lyndon B. Johnson won 60-40.) However, since then we’ve completely flipped orientation, and now California is practically a free win for Democratic candidates. What changed?

To put it simply, Pete Wilson (Republican California Governor 1991-1999) passed Proposition 187,  turning some of the most populace demographics in California away from the GOP (Grand Old Party.) 

Proposition 187 was a controversial ballot measure that would have denied services to people in the country illegally. To simplify and clarify that a little, Prop. 187 promised to deny all public services to illegal immigrants and force all state employees to immediately report illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation. 

As you might imagine, this was not a favorable proposition for the many Asian and Latino voters already within the state. After a population boom for Asian and Latino people in the 1990s, one that led to them making up more than half the population together, it’s no surprise that when Prop 187 passed the Republican party was alienated from a large portion of their voters. 

This was far from surprising, and was even predicted by Republicans Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett. As stated by William F. Buckley: “The Kemp‐​Bennet position says: Look, there shouldn’t be illegal immigrants in California, but it is the business of the Federal Government to keep them away. To pass such a measure as 187 situates the GOP (Grand Old Party) with a strain of xenophobia which will very quickly (California will be more than 50 percent Asian/​Latino at the turn of the century whatever happens to illegals) evolve into anti‐​GOP resentments by the majority of Californians. That could lead to such electoral catastrophes as pursued many GOP candidates who were slow in boarding the civil‐​rights crusade.”

Pete Wilson, the face of Prop. 187, did not help with the Latino/Asian population’s worries. His hardline stance on immigration in his reelection campaign of 1994, where he openly and avidly supported Prop. 187, and his subsequent success tied him, and his party, to the vaguely racist legacy of Prop. 187 for years. In a 2000 Tomas Rivera Policy Institute survey during the 2000 election revealed that 53 percent of Latino voters in California still associated the Republican Party with Pete Wilson, and not positively. In 2010, Latino Decisions polled California Latinos if they were concerned that Pete Wilson was the campaign co‐​chair for GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and they showed that they were (figure 1.)

Figure 1

Percent of California Latino Who Say They Are Concerned that Pete Wilson was Meg Whitman’s Campaign Co‐​Chair in 2010 Election

So, why did California turn blue? Because of an uptick in Latino (and Asian) immigrants to the state in the 1990s, followed by the GOP’s (and Pete Wilson’s) hardline stance on immigration. That turned a large portion of voters off of the Republican party and into the waiting arms of the Democrats. 

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